Why Environmentalists Are Making A Case For A Shorter Workweek

If you're like most people, you probably seriously look forward to long weekends. In fact, you might think it would be great if every weekend were three days long. And it's hard to argue that there wouldn't be benefits to reducing the total number of days people work in a week. For instance, research has suggested that four-day workweeks can be hugely beneficial for both work-life balance and employees' mental health, reducing stress amongst workers and, in a boon for business owners, increasing productivity for the organization (via World Economic Forum).

That idea might sound radical, but in fact, Henry Ford — who pioneered the 40-hour work week — was motivated to increase employee productivity when he reduced his standard working hours from 48 hours a week or 40, according to NBC News. In the 1800s, it was standard for employees to work as much as 70 hours a week in industrial factories before the total was gradually brought down, according to NPR.

Now, a four-day workweek could boost employee morale. But it could do more than that: In addition to giving you more time to hang out with your kids — or your video game console — research has suggested that a four-day workweek could actually be an essential strategy to slow climate change (via The Washington Post).

How working less helps the environment

According to a variety of studies, the four-day workweek can have a significant environmental impact: reducing total work hours by just 10% each week can lead to between a 4.2% and 14.6% reduction in total emissions, according to The Washington Post.

There are a few different mechanisms at play here. For one, people who work only four days a week only have to commute to the office four days a week. Cutting out one day's round trip to work can reduce gas usage and significantly shrink transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions. It also takes a lot of electricity to keep an office running, and that means carbon dioxide emissions, according to The Washington Post. When companies don't have to keep the lights on or heat or cool their offices one day a week, that both reduces their costs and their carbon footprint. For instance, when Microsoft Japan tested out a four-day workweek in 2019, they saw a nearly 25% reduction in their total energy costs, according to Euro News.

Shorter work weeks are not the answer to everything

Still, this effect isn't absolute — if people decide to use their free time to travel more, they could actually have a larger carbon footprint than if they had been spending their Fridays at the office, according to The Washington Post. And if offices decide to have employees work from home instead of taking the day off entirely, that could keep energy expenditures the same or increase them, as the Harvard Business Review notes — the effect isn't totally clear. Similarly, if employers let employees decide what day they want to take off of work (which might be necessary for customer service reasons, according to BetterUp), they'll still have to keep the office running all five days, meaning energy costs stay high, The Washington Post says.

Moreover, working remotely uses energy, too. If you're constantly sending emails or messages to your coworkers instead of just chatting with them in person, you're burning a lot of energy — something that could ultimately increase the size of your carbon footprint, according to the Harvard Business Review. Still, overall, the benefits of working a 4-day week seem to outweigh the downsides, according to The Washington Post.

Other ways to make an environmentally-friendly office

The four-day workweek might be a uniquely appealing strategy to fight climate change, since it gives people an excuse to kick back and relax (via the Financial Post). Still, even if a four-day workweek isn't feasible for your business or employer, that doesn't mean you can't do something to make your office a little greener.

The Harvard Business Review recommends implementing practices that reduce unnecessary commuting, like ensuring people can call in remotely to all-hands meetings. Employers can also create sustainable resources for employees to help them make cleaner choices, like providing proper bike infrastructure. Furthermore, the office space itself can be made greener via small changes, like adding extra recycling bins, using LED light bulbs, and offering filtered water instead of reusable bottles (per Earth 911). Though on an individual scale, these changes might seem small, over time between all of your employees, they can make a big difference.